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Bruce Springsteen Puts A Twist On California-Style Pop With 'Western Stars'


This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Bruce Springsteen has been going through a period of trying new things, including an extended run on Broadway and a one-man autobiographical show. Now he has a new solo album called "Western Stars," which Springsteen says draws inspiration from the Southern California pop records of the late 1960s and early '70s. Here's Ken's review of "Western Stars."


BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Had enough of heartbreak and pain. I had a little sweet spot for the rain, for the rain and skies of gray. Hello, sunshine. Won't you stay?

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Had enough of heartbreak and pain, sings Bruce Springsteen in the opening words of that song called "Hello Sunshine." What's this - a Bruce Springsteen casting aside heartbreak and pain? I would not have thought such a boss could exist. Nevertheless, there remains something guarded in his tone as he greets the bright sun. Even with a West Coast tan, Springsteen remains restless, searching.


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) I got so down and out in Frisco, tired of the pills and the rain. I picked up, headed for the sunshine. I left a good thing behind. Seemed all of our love was in vain. My baby's coming in on the Tucson train.

TUCKER: In his 2016 autobiography and subsequent Broadway show, one of the things Springsteen performed was a demystification of his image, a critique of the authenticity myth that surrounds him and which he sometimes feels as a trap. That process continues on this album, which is an intentional, if only temporary, move away from the earthy naturalism of the E Street Band. In its place are string sections, oboes, French horns.

For the source of this, Springsteen has directed our attention to Jimmy Webb's hits with Glen Campbell, like "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston." Springsteen's open-hearted response to them is new songs with similarly geographical titles, like "Tucson Train" and "Somewhere North Of Nashville." Half a century ago, the film studios used to hire Frankie Laine or Johnny Horton to sing the sort of Western movie ballads Springsteen conjures up in a new song like "Sundown."


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) I'm 2,500 miles from where I want to be. It feels like a hundred years since you've been near to me. I guess what goes around, baby, comes around. Just wishing you were here with me in sundown.

TUCKER: To be honest, I've always found Jimmy Webb's songwriting and arrangements overwrought and mawkish. But in using them as sparks for his own creativity here, Springsteen is aided immeasurably by the roughness of his voice, which cuts the sap and the strict denial of sentimentality in his own lyrics. The result is California-style pop with a boss twist, sunset melancholy worthy of The Mamas and The Papas and The Beau Brummels.


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) I woke up this morning with stones in my mouth - said those were only the lies you've told me. Those are only the lies you've told me. I put my collar to the wind and spit them on the ground. You said those are only the lies you've told me. Those are only the lies you've told me. Sat on the edge of our bed in the sun. I felt them gather on my tongue. I woke up this morning...

TUCKER: That's called "Stones," with that stark, beautiful refrain. The title song, "Western Stars," plays on two of its meanings - the starry frontier sky and the cinematic celebrities that used to roam the old West. Monte Hellman's 1966 Western "Ride In The Whirlwind" gets name-checked in "Western Stars," as does John Wayne. You just know that the wide-open spaces of Springsteen's expansive arrangements are meant to put you in mind of John Ford Westerns like "The Searchers" and "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon."


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Once I was shot by John Wayne, yeah, it was towards the end. That one scene's brought me a thousand drinks. Set me up, and I'll tell it for you, friend. Here's to the cowboys, riders in the whirlwind. Tonight, the Western stars are shining bright again. And the Western stars are shining bright again. Tonight, the riders on Sunset are smothered in the Santa Ana winds. And the Western stars are shining bright again. Come on and ride me down easy. Ride me down easy, friend, 'cause tonight, the Western stars are shining bright again. I woke up this morning, just glad my boots were on.

TUCKER: Ultimately, no matter how different the music around him may sound, Springsteen has made a Springsteen album populated by slightly different characters - movie extras and stunt men, exhausted couples that check into a place called the Moonlight Motel. When the sun comes up, they'll get in their car, and Bruce will be in the back seat, serenading them as they drive on to Los Angeles in hopes of changing their bad luck for good.

DAVIES: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Bruce Springsteen's new album called "Western Stars."

On tomorrow's FRESH AIR, we speak with Nicole Perlroth, The New York Times cybersecurity correspondent, about the powerful cyberweapons now in the hands of foreign governments, criminals and private security firms. For five weeks, the city of Baltimore has struggled to recover from a ransomware attack on its computer systems, which may have employed stolen cyberweapons developed by the U.S. government. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Sunrise, sundown - the street's gone golden-brown. Auburn skies above, I'm searching for my love, searching for my love. There goes my miracle, walking away, walking away. There goes my miracle, walking away... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.